Film Reviews

Checking out the Film: Halloween Edition

‘Tis the season to watch horror films for free from under a mountain of fleecy blankets. Is there any other way to watch a creepy movie? This is a special Halloween edition of Checking out the Film, short reviews of recent library check-outs.

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Title

Demon

Director

Marcin Wrona

Format

Streaming (Hoopla)

Review

Nothing’s more fun than a wedding, right? Wrong–in so many, many ways. Especially so when you’ve recently uncovered a body (and rapidly buried it again) on the plot of land where you’re building a house for your bride-to-be. Worse still when this land belongs to her family, so you have very literally discovered the skeletons they were hiding.

For Piotr, his wedding in small town Poland goes from bad to worse when the spirit of the deceased possesses him in this tale of a dybbuk from Jewish mythology. The concept works chillingly well as the spirit is that of a Jewish woman who mysteriously vanished from the village long ago in the late 1930s. This is very much a slow burn that could have used a bit more intrigue early on, but quite an original concept for a horror film.

Who Should Watch

People who can’t imagine anything worse than the last wedding they attended. It can always be worse.

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Title

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Director

Jack Arnold

Format

Streaming (Hoopla)

Review

It’s that time of the year for a holiday classic about a swimmer in a fish man costume. After scientists take a trip down the Amazon in search of wildlife there, they encroach on the natural habitat of a creature who hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creature is less than stoked when the humans hang around and chuck a few spears in its direction, though it’s quite ok with essential lady assistant Kay hanging around.

I’m going to be honest–to me, this doesn’t hold up as a horror classic. It’s not even campy or melodramatic enough to be entertaining. There are just endless shots of dudes swimming around underwater, which was probably quite advanced at the time, but isn’t visually thrilling in black and white. And for all of the classic posters of Kay being abducted by the creature, she’s in its clutches for less than a minute of this film’s run time. Is that an odd complaint about a film–not enough abduction? I do appreciate the aquatic take on Frankenstein here, and the early environmental messages.

Who Should Watch

Al Gore.

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Title

Child’s Play (2019)

Director

Lars Kievberg

Format

DVD

Review

In this 21st century update of the horror franchise, Chucky is a smart doll who controls electronics and learns from the world around him. Surely nothing could go wrong when a refurbished model of the doll sits through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and listens to pre-teen Andy talk about his hatred for his mom’s boyfriend…right? Aubrey Plaza, kindred spirit and horror star of my dreams, plays Andy’s mom, who has terrible taste in men and struggles to make ends meet. Her life is about to get much more difficult when Chucky develops a mind of his own.

While quite fun, this film feels like an extended episode of Goosebumps, but with more swearing. The concept for the update is a good one, but Chucky is never going to be as gleefully gory as in the days when he was the spirit of a serial killer trapped in the body of a doll. I honestly think some of the recent films in the Child’s Play franchise of old have been more entertaining in their willingness to embrace B-movie absurdity. Not a bad use of time, but not especially memorable.

Who Should Watch

People who can stomach a significant amount of violence against cats.

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Title

Hereditary

Director

Ari Aster

Format

Streaming (Kanopy)

Review

Following the death of her emotionally abusive mother, Annie’s life begins to unravel in unexpected ways. After a horrific accident, Annie’s worst nightmare comes true: she behaves more and more like her mother. Seeking to connect with the dead, Annie turns to a kindly member of her support group who claims to speak with her deceased grandson regularly. When she manages to communicate with spirits, it’s unclear whether Annie is experiencing an otherworldly power or the same delusions that tortured her mother.

As noted many times, Toni Collette gives a brilliant, genuinely chilling performance here; in fact, I don’t think you can fault any of the performances. The disturbing images and experiences of the characters match the film’s ambitious messages about the curse of genetics and family inheritance. Though I find the end to be a bit too clever in its attempt at a dramatic twist, the conclusion has a horrific sensation of inevitability. Truly one of the good ones.

Who Should Watch

People who have ever considered having children of their own. Rethink this IMMEDIATELY.

What horrors have you witnessed this month? Ideally on film, but feel free to share your truth.

Header photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A man gestures to his left as the woman next to him smiles and links arms with him
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Polka King, or: Dirtbag Men of the ’90s

Biopic month continues, now featuring the subtheme of dirtbag men!  This week’s dirtbag is also a legend of the music scene–specifically, the polka scene.

The Film:

The Polka King

The Premise:

The true story of Jan Lewan, the self-proclaimed polka king of Pennsylvania who, among other things, ran a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme.

The Ramble:

As we begin, Jan Lewan, seems to be a fairly successful manager and lead singer of a small polka band.  In addition to the polka band, Jan sells Polish merchandise, owns a pizza place, and sells his own brand of vodka.  Nonetheless, Jan is barely making ends meet, a fact his mother-in-law, Barb, never lets him forget.

a woman with curly hair and large glasses sits in a kitchen and looks disapprovingly

Ambitious and determined to live out his own American dream, Jan wants to build a life where he can live comfortably with his wife Marla and son David.  Yet the polka band Jan has worked so hard to put together is in danger of falling apart as bff Micky Pizzazz, earning almost nothing from the venture, threatens to quit.

A Polka band performs beneath a sign that reads "St. Stan's Polka Party." The band is led by a man in a red 1970s style suit, and includes many people playing instruments, a man dressed as a chicken, and a woman dressed as a squirrel.

When elderly fans of the band want to invest in Jan’s business ventures, he eagerly jumps on the opportunity, despite not being an investor or having a registered investment company.  Though Jan promises an outrageous return on investment, he’s not worried–the cash infusion has solved his short-term problems and kept the band together.

It doesn’t take long for the FBI to discover Jan’s amateurish scheme and warn him to return the money.  Jan agrees to this, but his fans still insist on investing large sums with his business.  What’s a guy to do…surely it would be rude to turn them down?

As Jan rakes in more and more cash, he also spends wildly.  Organizing a European trip, Jan promises an audience with the pope to all on the tour.  Somehow he manages to pull this off, though Micky is extremely agitated with Jan’s freewheeling style.

two men walk alongside a heavily graffiti-ed wall on an Italian street

Five years pass, and Jan’s polka band has earned him a Grammy nomination.  Meanwhile, Marla, tired of living in Jan’s shadow, decides to recapture her beauty pageant days by competing for the title of Mrs. Pennsylvania.  Against the odds, Marla wins…though begins to receive some strange calls about the nature of her victory.  Could Jan perhaps have something to do with this?

a woman in an evening dress smiles onstage alongside several other smiling women

As investors hear about the scandal surrounding the pageant, they begin pulling their money from Jan’s company.  However, he insists they’ll get an even better return if they wait just a little while longer.

Suddenly, while on tour with the polka band, the van crashes and David ends up on life support.

Jan worries this is a sign God is punishing him, and prays for the punishment to fall on his shoulders instead of his son’s.  What will happen when Jan’s schemes finally catch up with him?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Eh, this is a reasonably interesting story, but I’m not sure it merits its own movie.  The story with the pope is apparently true, which is quite remarkable.  But the pacing of this movie is odd, and a traumatic event like David’s near-death experience is just sort of an aside.  Interestingly, the same thing happened with Vince’s daughter in The Dirt.  Coincidence?

Jan comes across as charming and charismatic, and it’s easy to see why people would foolishly trust him with their money.  However, his portrayal in this film implies he just naively believes this sort of opportunism is part of being an American and lacks the empathy and foresight to see the impact on his victims.  I have trouble believing there was no malice or that a lack of awareness makes his schemes any less awful.  Many people do manage to forgive him, but that strikes me as the mark of a successful con man.

There’s some fun here, and the performances are great, but it isn’t enough to make this film or story stand out.  Breaking news:  the men of polka can also be dirtbag con artists.  What a shocker.

Would my blog wife join in the polka action or send it to jail for its shady business practices?  Find out by reading her review here!

a woman in a headscarf leans over a woman lying in a hospital bed
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Art of Loving, or: You Weren’t Found in a Cabbage Patch

It’s summer, so we’re doing what we want on the blog (in contrast to every other season).  This week we’re up for some education on sexual and reproductive health…in 1970s Poland.  Based on a true story!

The Film:

The Art of Loving

The Premise:

A renowned Polish gynecologist struggles to publish a book that addresses very real–and very taboo–sexual issues married couples experience.

The Ramble:

Michalina Wisłocka, having worked as a gynecologist for years in many parts of Poland, has long been an advocate for contraception and the demystification of sex. Now, in the 1970s, she is ready to publish a book to help married couples, and especially women, understand their reproductive health and sexual issues. Enter the Catholic Church, stage left. Also the Soviets. Plus the media. And throw in a few disgruntled misogynists too for good measure. Getting a book published on such a taboo topic is going to be a battle.

a woman wearing a headscarf is seated in a meeting room and raises her index finger as she says "I want to make people conscious"
…of wearing super chic boho-style headscarves.

As it turns out, Michalina has always been surrounded by controversy. After spying on a skinny dipping man with her bff Wanda, Michalina eventually ends up marrying him. In large part because of Wanda, Michalina and her husband Stach survive the war. Wanda goes to live with the couple, and they eventually become a threesome. Michalina thinks this will work out perfectly as Wanda fulfills Stach’s sexual needs, while Michalina will fulfill his emotional needs.

After the war is over, Michalina pursues a medical degree and the 3 live together in harmony. Of course, this doesn’t last—when both Michalina and Wanda become pregnant, things get rather complicated. As Wanda is an unmarried woman, Michalina claims both as her own children. This will be totally fine and never backfire as this unconventional family will be together forever…right?

two women and a man walk away from a military complex in the rain while smiling and laughing
WWII lulz,

Yeah, maybe not. Wanda feels like a 3rd wheel and decides to leave with her son. This move will create absolutely no trauma for any parties involved…by which I mean SO much trauma for everyone. Wanda leaving triggers the dissolution of Michalina and Stach’s marriage, transforming a family of 5 into a party of 2.

Devastated, Michalina retreats to a small Polish village for the summer. Though she insists she’s taking a break from men, Michalina is nevertheless drawn to Jurek, a married sailor with a secret romantic streak.  From Jurek, Michalina gets her signature style of clothing made primarily from curtains.  She also feels encouraged to love and appreciate her body for the first time.  Unfortunately, Jurek is going to have to choose between his family and Michalina…3 guesses on how that turns out.

a man and woman look out the window of a tall building at the landscape below
We’ll always have Lubieniec…

In the present day (by which I mean the 1970s), Michalina is on the verge of publishing her book.  However, to avoid controversy, the chapter on female orgasms has been cut.  Following a ridiculous male rights conversation about men’s orgasms being important too (we know), Michalina walks with her book, refusing to compromise on this.

Will Michalina find a publisher and help thousands of Polish women reach their, er, full potential?  Related question:  is there a time in history when middle-aged white dudes are not trying to control women’s bodies?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I absolutely love the portrayal of Michalina in this (by Magdalena Boczarska).  She’s smart, confident, caring, and unwaveringly determined.  Some of her lines are absolutely brilliant–my favorites being “I am the sexual revolution and I’m coming,” and “You’re from a vagina; you weren’t found in a cabbage patch.”  What a woman.

However, there are a few things I find frustrating throughout the film.  The entire subplot of the secret baby mama feels melodramatic and disjointed.  Michalina is heartbroken when Wanda leaves with her child and believes both kids will be fucked up for life.  Yet after this scene, the film spends very little time exploring the effects on all parties and wrapping up this part of the story.

After the dissolution of the Michalina/Wanda/Stach relationship, the close bond between Michalina and Wanda disappears.  It’s frustrating to see such a genuine love vanish because of men–and indeed the extent to which Michalina’s early decisions are influenced by men.  While I adore Jurek and his surprisingly forward-thinking brand of 1970s Polish feminism, I dislike how much of the film revolves around Michalina’s relationships with men.

Would Christa flip straight to the dirty pictures or burn the manuscript?  Find out by reading her review here!